I’m sure just about everyone reading this has heard of Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kasynzski (the “Unabomber”) or the Tsarnaev brothers. But, as notorious as those sick criminals and their acts of terrorism are, it’s almost astonishing that the name George Metesky is not as well-known as they are. Back in the middle part of the 20th century, Metesky held all of New York City in an astonishing nightmare of terror that lasted nearly 17 years. Years before Osama bin Laden was even born, Metesky but the “bomb” in the words “mad bomber,” and his story is almost unbelievable–but entirely true.
It all began at a power plant run by Consolidated Edison, the power company that supplies power to the New York City area. On September 5, 1931, George Metesky, a seemingly normal blue-collar guy, was working as a generator wiper when an accident caused a buildup of hot gases in a nearby boiler. The gases escaped, knocking down Metesky and severely injuring his lungs. Unable to work, he eventually caught pneumonia, then tuberculosis. The Con Ed company refused his repeated requests for worker’s compensation. Seething with hatred for the company he blamed for crippling him, Metesky decided to get revenge.
He created a small pipe bomb loaded with gunpowder, sugar and flashlight batteries. Enclosing the bomb in a package with a note that referred to “Con Ed crooks,” on November 16, 1940 Metesky left the bomb on a windowsill at a Con Ed power plant. It was discovered before it went off. Eleven months later another pipe bomb was discovered in the street in front of Con Ed’s corporate headquarters. it was also found before it exploded.
A patriotic terrorist? Metesky’s letter in which he pledged to stop bombing New York while the U.S. was fighting a war.
In December 1941, just after the United States entered World War II, New York City police received a letter written in the same block capitals as the note accompanying the November 1940 bomb. The note proclaimed that due to the bomber’s “patriotic feelings,” he would plant no bombs for as long as the United States remained at war. He was even better than his word–no bombs matching the previous M.O. were discovered during the war, or for six more years after its end.
Then, in 1951, for reasons unknown, Metesky returned with a vengeance. He began planting, hiding and mailing pipe bombs all over the city, always in public places, sometimes theaters, train or bus stations or other high-traffic areas. Sometimes the police found them before they went off; sometimes they didn’t. Metesky blew up a phone booth at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, a storage locker in Grand Central Station, and even stuffed a pipe bomb into the upholstery of a theater seat in Radio City Music Hall, which went off during a showing of the Bing Crosby film White Christmas. A bomb that Metesky hid in a toilet bowl in a men’s room at Pennsylvania Station severely injured an elderly bathroom attendant. In total 15 people were injured by the over 30 bombs that Metesky planted around the city; it’s a miracle no one died.
By 1956, the “Mad Bomber” was a household word and the NYPD began a massive manhunt to find the terrorist and shake him down. The notes found with the first few bombs made “disgruntled Con Ed employee” the number one theory, but when detectives tried to check the personnel records, they suddenly got a lot of static from the Con Ed company. The company claimed that all the personnel records prior to 1940 had been destroyed. This turned out to be a lie. In the meantime, the hysteria of the public and a rash of copy-cat bomb threats made the investigation more frustrating and perilous.
Probably the most famous picture of George Metesky, smiling through his prison bars shortly after his capture.
Finally the police appealed to Metesky himself, through the media. After psychological profiles compiled by the police constructed what turned out to be an eerily accurate picture of the terrorist, the police played a hunch that he couldn’t resist the impulse to publicize his motives. In January 1957 the police penned a public letter to the bomber in the New York Journal American. He responded, harping on how bad and crooked the Con Ed company was and describing the hurt and shame of his own accident that had given him cause to hate them. He even gave the exact date of his injury: September 5, 1931.
This date was the clue that led to Metesky’s capture. A Con Ed clerk who had been tasked with going through old worker’s comp files noticed the date and noticed that it matched one of the files she’d been looking at. Con Ed had only a few days before admitted to the police that it did have injury files going back to 1931–something the cops didn’t know before. As soon as they looked at Metesky’s injury file and his angry letters to the company, which used many of the same phrases repeated in the newspaper letters, they went to arrest him. On January 21, 1957, Metesky went into custody with no trouble, and the mad bomber’s reign of terror was over.
Why did he do it? For exactly the reasons he told the newspapers–and repeated to the police: he was pissed off at Con Ed for giving him a “bum rap” over his 1931 injury. Although indicted on 47 counts, including 7 of attempted murder, a judge found George Metesky legally insane and incompetent to stand trial. He served 16 years in a hospital for the criminally insane and was released in 1973. He died quietly in Connecticut in 1994.
George Metesky may not have killed anyone, but the fact that he did not was sheer dumb luck. In all other respects his reign of fear is a textbook case of terrorism. There was nothing religious or ideological about his motive–it was just one sick man who had been wronged and decided to take it out on the rest of New York City. There’s a sad lesson in here somewhere.